Alex Chadwick: Recharged to cover an energetic beat

By Mike Janssen

“Honest to God, I didn’t know if I could still do it, or if I wanted to still do it,” Chadwick said about returning to journalism. First he gave himself a jolt with a dive through Cataract Canyon in Utah. (Chadwick photo: Andy Comins. Canyonlands photo: Chris Simon, Sageland Media.)

Alex Chadwick was lost. It took a journey to an unlikely place — the whitewater rapids of a Utah canyon — for him to find his way back to radio.

In 2008, Chadwick found himself absent from the airwaves for the first time in decades. He had stepped down as host of the NPR show Day to Day to return to reporting, only to be laid off a month later, an unceremonious end to 31 years at the network.

He then devoted himself to caring for his wife and partner in broadcasting, Carolyn Jensen Chadwick, who was battling multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood cells. She passed away in August 2010, at the age of 65. She and Chadwick had been married for 15 years.

The dismissal by NPR had stung Chadwick. The loss of Carolyn devastated him. He was expecting to return to journalism, thinking he might like reporting again after years in the all-consuming role of hosting a daily show. But he felt adrift, rusty, unsure of his abilities.

“Honest to God, I didn’t know if I could still do it, or if I still wanted to do it,” Chadwick says.

But for Chadwick’s fans — as well as his many champions in public radio — it may have seemed unthinkable and improbable that he would abandon the medium.

Chadwick’s lucid writing and intimate storytelling style had been an exemplar of NPR’s sound for years, since his early days with a new show called Morning Edition, as reporter for his wife’s Radio Expeditions series, and through the startup of Day to Day. Could he really leave it all behind?

An opportunity for a new perspective on these questions arose when a friend invited Chadwick on an eight-day rafting trip. The rapids would be daunting, and Chadwick had never undertaken such a journey. “He was apprehensive and a little fearful,” says John Weisheit, an environmental activist and professional river guide. “But he trusted me because I convinced him that he was going to live through this experience and be transformed by it. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Chadwick emerged from the experience renewed and will soon have a national audience once again. His new series — Burn: An Energy Journal, four hour-long programs about the future of energy production and use — debuts next month. Burn, the brainchild of Bari Scott, whose SoundVision Productions previously produced The DNA Files, is giving Chadwick a fresh start.

“It’s a whole new kind of growth spurt for him — he’s very wide-eyed, interested and tirelessly curious,” says Mary Beth Kirchner, Burn’s managing producer.

“The path that got me here is not the one I would have chosen by any means,” Chadwick says. “But here I am.”

Booster for indies

Chadwick turned to journalism in the early ’70s, at a time when NPR was just a toddler. The drama of Watergate and the groundbreaking writing of Hunter S. Thompson made the profession exciting to Chadwick, who was studying at American University in Washington, D.C., under the renowned CBS News veteran Ed Bliss. Other students of Bliss’s would include NPR’s David Molpus, Bob Edwards and Ellen McDonnell.

Under Bliss’s direction, the young journalists produced a professional-quality newscast for the campus radio station. When the winter holidays came, Bliss pushed his students to keep the newscast going despite the two-week break in classes. Chadwick stayed with it just to get the extra tutelage from Bliss, once a chief writer for Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow.

“Those were probably the two most influential weeks of my life in terms of learning to write,” Chadwick says.

After graduating, Chadwick went on to report for a commercial radio station in Maine, though he was working on a lobster boat in 1977 when radio called again. A friend at NPR asked him to join the network to host Closer Look, a news module that was a forerunner to Morning Edition. Chadwick took the offer and stayed with the young network through the tumultuous process of getting Morning Edition on the air.

For most of his time at NPR, Chadwick took projects that were understaffed and underfunded, with some looming risk of failure. “But I always had complete editorial independence,” he says. “I did what I wanted.”

Among other things, that involved putting some of public radio’s most celebrated independent producers on the air. In 1983, Scott Carrier hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., interviewing the drivers who gave him rides along the way. He had heard stories by the Kitchen Sisters, whom Chadwick put on NPR for the first time. Carrier walked into NPR’s offices and met Chadwick, who was working that Sunday.

It’s unlikely that anyone else would have let him in, Carrier says. Not only did Chadwick open the door, but he guided Carrier through producing his first story. “I wouldn’t have a career in radio at all if it wasn’t for Alex helping me,” Carrier says.

Chadwick and his NPR colleagues introduced Carrier to innovative indies Larry Massett, Joe Frank and the Kitchen Sisters. The creative relationship between Chadwick and Carrier continued for decades.

“Alex always tried to help independent producers get their stuff on the air,” Carrier says. “It wasn’t easy, and now it’s nearly impossible.”

Leaving Day to Day — and NPR

Chadwick’s honest voice, clear writing and openness to indies’ creations would go on to become recognizable traits of Day to Day, the midday newsmagazine launched in 2003 at NPR West in the Los Angeles area.

The host realized that taking the job in Culver City could be risky — he knew that midday news shows had failed before. And he was enjoying plum roles at the network: serving as backup host of Morning Edition, reporting exotic stories for the National Geographic–backed Radio Expeditions and doing any feature stories he wanted to do.

But he took the L.A. job. “It was thrilling,” he says. “It was fun. It was horrendous.” The effort of starting a new hour long show was taxing, but the young and energetic staff, and the excitement they brought to their work, reminded Chadwick of NPR’s early days. It was a spirit that he felt was “increasingly absent and frowned upon at NPR Central,” he says.

As Chadwick soaked up the buzz of his staff, they learned from him as well. Shereen Marisol Meraji, now a reporter for KPCC in Pasadena, Calif., remembers when Chadwick’s blunt criticism of an idea she floated made her cry, but she learned to toughen up. One lesson in particular stuck with Meraji: looking for the perfect piece of natural sound to enhance a story, a trademark of Chadwick’s work. “He burned that into me, and now I can’t get rid of it,” she says.

Chadwick left Day to Day after the 2008 election, as the recession deepened and public radio revenues shriveled, a month before NPR slashed its budget and shuttered the show. Those cuts would also bring about Chadwick’s dismissal from the network.

The timing of Chadwick’s layoff was keenly painful — he got the call while in a meeting with his wife’s oncologist. He and Carolyn were learning that her condition had not improved and that she would undergo six months’ additional treatment and a bone-marrow transplant.

“It was a really difficult day,” he says. “So for NPR to call me up and tell me I’m fired on that day — it barely registered.” The call was delivered by Ellen Weiss, then v.p. of news and an architect of the layoffs, whom Chadwick had hired in 1983 for her first full-time staff job at NPR.

Today he is reluctant to say much about his dismissal, other than that he felt “badly betrayed” on a professional level.

“There are a lot of people at NPR whom I value,” he says. “There are a lot of people at NPR I’ve had disagreements with. Many of them are gone.”

Moving on without Carolyn

For the next year and a half, Chadwick took care of his wife, until she passed away Aug. 15, 2010. In a remembrance posted on NPR’s website, Chadwick called Carolyn “old line New England elegant, and a short skirt sensation.”

“Alex was very much in love with Carolyn,” says Scott Carrier. “She was like his soulmate.”

Chadwick stopped working until the spring of 2011, when he began pursuing energy as a topic. His interest in the subject brought him in touch with John Weisheit, the river guide and activist. Weisheit learned of Chadwick’s recent loss and, to jar him from his routine, suggested the eight-day river trip to Cataract Canyon in Utah, whose rapids are among North America’s most threatening. Chadwick had never attempted rafting, but that didn’t stop him.

“He was quite the trooper,” Weisheit says. “I’m very proud of him.”

The resulting story, “The Descent,” was Chadwick’s first since leaving NPR, and it challenged him. (Listen on KCRW’s site.) It was the most personal story he’d ever done, and he was feeling out of practice. “Even if you’re good” at reporting, he says, “if you stop doing it for a couple of years, you wonder, ‘Can I even figure out what a story is anymore?’”

The characters in the story include not only Chadwick, but also Tim DeChristopher, an environmental activist who was facing a prison sentence for disrupting a federal auction of oil and gas leases. In DeChristopher, Chadwick saw a state of limbo that mirrored his own. “I’m in a kind of prison already,” Chadwick says in the story. “I don’t know my sentence, either. My wife died last summer. I tried to save her for many months and failed. I stopped working. I’ve been lost.”

A river is good if you’re lost, he says, because it carries you to one place. Like a river, “The Descent,” which aired on KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif, and in shortened form on All Things Considered, took Chadwick somewhere — back into his craft.

“What I gleaned from all this is that, in fact, I did want to do it,” he says. He credits the particular difficulties of reporting the story with restoring his spirits. Not only was it deeply personal, but he had to intertwine his story with DeChristopher’s and the account of their descent through the rapids. And he’d forgotten a cable, which barred him from recording some sounds of the river. He had a hard puzzle to solve.

“Part of the pleasure of being a radio reporter is figuring out that kind of stuff, and I thought I did it pretty well here,” he says. “So, what the heck, try another one.”

Listeners were happy to have him back. “It was so wonderful to hear you do a story again,” responded one named Suzie, who posted a comment on KCRW’s website. “I did not realize how much I had missed you until I heard you this afternoon.”

Returning with Burn

For the next step in Chadwick’s return to reporting, he enrolled in the Science Literacy Project, a workshop for mid-career science journalists organized by SoundVision Productions, based in Berkeley, Calif. He was much older than the other participants, but he wanted the chance to learn about science from professionals and to be among younger journalists again, as he had been at NPR, to be inspired by their energy.

“When he sent in his application, I called him and said, ‘Alex, are you kidding me? You could teach the class on writing,’” says SoundVision’s Bari Scott.

“We accepted him, of course,” she says. “How could you not accept Alex Chadwick?”

Scott did more than just accept him into the workshop. She and Mary Beth Kirchner, managing editor of the new series about energy that Scott was developing, were looking for a host. When Kirchner saw Chadwick in the front row of one of Scott’s classes, it was a “perfect moment of serendipity,” she says.

Kirchner had come to create programs by shaping them around a host’s personality and strengths, rather than an idea — a strategy adopted in the CPB-backed Public Radio Talent Quest in which she had participated. And in a media environment already saturated with energy coverage, a distinctive voice could help set Burn apart. What she calls Chadwick’s “trusted, master-storyteller voice” was the key.

In Burn, Chadwick aims to tell the story of energy’s future through what Kirchner calls “the smallest stories possible” — personal accounts that bring the issue to life. The first episode, slated to air next month near the first anniversary of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, opens with an American nuclear technician delivering his eyewitness account of the event, the residual trauma still evident in his voice.

So far, 200 stations have signed up to air Burn, including outlets in all top-10 markets. Promoters for the show say the carriage testifies in part to Chadwick’s reputation as a host. A second episode about oil and offshore drilling will follow in April, to coincide with Earth Day as well as the second anniversary of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Two additional specials are planned for the fall. The show’s current run is funded by the National Science Foundation, and Scott aims to find funding for more episodes.

Chadwick hopes to explore the future and science of energy for some time. It appeals to him as a topic, he says, because it is complex, imperfect and “inherently dangerous.”

Every alternative to carbon-based fuels “presents rewards and risks and opportunities,” he says. “There’s no such thing as clean energy. Everything we want to try is flawed. Everything has something wrong with it, and the things that are wrong are not small. They’re big.”

Chadwick found his way into energy reporting through following the case of DeChristopher, the activist who accompanied him on his river trip. His commitment to his new beat was not sealed, however, until he met Sonja McCormick.

She’s a landman — someone who secures land rights on behalf of prospectors and oil companies. The history and experiences she related to Chadwick captivated him.

“I understood that someone’s life was connected to all this, and I knew enough about her and what she did to think that it was an honorable life,” Chadwick wrote in an email. “She opened a lens for me. She made this intensely human in a way that I didn’t expect it to be. I think it’s not very often that we, as reporters, actually learn anything. Mostly we validate the obvious. I learned from Sonja — buying strategies, land management records, misreporting — she was helpful to a reporter who didn’t know anything.” Chadwick hopes to include McCormick in a future story.

The love of reporting that has resurged in Chadwick has made working on Burn a unique experience for Kirchner, his collaborator. “It’s been a real privilege to work with him at this moment of exploration and discovery of what else he might have to give public radio,” she says.

Chadwick’s work has aired on NPR since his departure, but when asked whether he’d want to return to the network staff, he says he’s happy doing what he’s doing now. He’s not making as much money as he did at NPR, but he’s happier.

“I’m doing what I wanted to do for the audience that I wanted to do it for, which is the public radio audience,” he says. “That’s my audience.”

Comments, questions, tips? mike@mikejanssen.net

EARLIER STORIES

“Alex Chadwick is my favorite reporter on public radio,” says Ira Glass in a 1998 lecture.

Alex Chadwick and his spouse Carolyn Jensen go on Radio Expeditions, 1999.

Chadwick starts hosting NPR’s Day to Day, July 2003.

Quick! Find a voice and be funny about it! 2004.

When the recession hit it, NPR laid off 64 people, half of them at NPR West, including Day to Day staffers, December 2008. Chadwick had left already, but he also lost his job.

Producer Carolyn Jensen Chadwick dies, August 2010.

RELATED LINKS

Facebook outpost of Burn: An Energy Journal.

Burn audio on Soundcloud.

NPR’s archive of Day to Day programs, including its final credits.

Tony Kahn, Jay Allison and Joe Richman discuss Chadwick’s “Interviews 50 Cents” setup on Transom.org (PDF).

Remembering Carolyn Jensen Chadwick aired through NPR.

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